You Can’t Predict the Future

In the latest edition (June 2020) of Sports Car Market (SCM) magazine, a reader wrote a letter to the Editor, requesting an explanation of the so-called “frequent flier” phenomenon (referring to the same vehicle appearing at multiple auctions over a short period of time). I will quote part of his letter:

“… often in the auction reviews, you note a car has been at or across the auction block three or five times in four or six years. Is there a story here? ….Is there a certain type of car which attracts this ‘flipping’ activity?’ …. Is there a certain type of buyer/seller involved in this? The easy answer is ‘speculators hoping to make a quick buck’…..”

I think that SCM dodged providing a real answer when they responded: “There is indeed a certain type of seller – we suspect possessing a world-class stubbornness – who trucks a car to several auctions in a short period of time. … (these) cars mostly have an impact on the bank account of the present owner….”

Whether the individual who posed the question intended this or not, the answer presumes that the ‘frequent flier’ vehicle never gets sold, so the same owner incurs transportation costs, auction fees, and the like. From my own observations of the auction market, the reality is different. Many frequent fliers DO get sold, chalking up multiple new owners over the short haul.

The obvious next question is: did the seller make a profit? Here’s the crux of the issue. Why would any owner of a special-interest vehicle consider selling it within the first year or two of ownership? While there could be any number of reasons (needs the money/found something else/didn’t meet expectations), was the car principally purchased as an investment?

The subheading on each month’s cover of SCM is “The Insider’s Guide to Collecting, Investing, Values, and Trends”. I’ve been a subscriber since 1997. I enjoy the magazine. It’s always done a great job of reporting auction results worldwide, in a timely fashion for a print periodical. What SCM cannot do, and no one can, is predict the future. This is not a knock on the magazine. A vehicle, or a class of make and model vehicles, rises in value faster than the overall market for a multitude of reasons. Many of these reasons have no basis in rationality. Several of my car buddies agree with me that the #1 rule is to buy what you like, enjoy it, and don’t worry too much about values. Yet it’s always interesting to speculate what would have happened if I bought X instead of Y.

Late in 2003, I bought a 1968 Mustang ‘California Special’ aka GT/CS. At that time, average selling prices for cars with the small block 289/302 V8 were around $15,000. There was a 20% premium for the ‘S’ code (4 barrel carb) big-block 390. I found a car for sale with the ‘X’ code 2-barrel 390, and paid $16,000, which I thought was a fair price, not a steal, but perhaps slightly under market. I liked that Mustang a lot, drove it to many shows and events, and sold it nine years later. The irony is, I had been considering some vehicles other than the Mustang, including an older 911, but it wasn’t so serious that I actually sought out or test drove one.

Why hadn’t someone told me 911 values were going to go through the roof? Is it because no one knew?

From the Jan. 2004 CPI

 

I subscribe to, and keep old copies of, the price guide known as Cars of Particular Interest (CPI). The book publishes retail values for cars in excellent (#2), good (#3) and fair (#4) value. I decided to have some fun with this by going back to the January 2004 edition and looking up 10 cars of interest to me whose #3 value was very close to my Mustang’s purchase price. (That copy of CPI had my Mustang at $18,600 for a #3 car.) I then compared those numbers to their 2020 CPI values, and calculated the percentage increase (none lost value). The chart is arranged in order of value increase from smallest to largest.

YEAR MAKE MODEL Value 2004 Value 2020 CHANGE
1970 Plymouth Barracuda 340 coupe $15,525 $26,000 167%
1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 $15,600 $28,000 179%
1968 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 convertible $13,750 $27,000 196%
1971 Alfa Romeo Montreal $13,100 $42,000 321%
1969 Jaguar E-Type Ser. II coupe $14,500 $55,000 379%
1968 Mercury Cougar GT-E 427 $13,000 $53,000 408%
1967 Mercedes-Benz 230SL roadster $14,900 $61,000 409%
1963 Porsche 356 S90 coupe $14,750 $62,000 420%
1961 Lincoln Continental 4-dr conv. $11,500 $56,000 487%
1969 Porsche 911 S coupe $11,500 $83,000 722%

 

Again, we’ve kept things apples-to-apples by using CPI and by using #3 condition values. I’ll make the following observations:

  • It surprised me to see that the 3 cars with the smallest value changes are all domestic. None of those cars are performance slouches, and given the general trend that “muscle sells”, I expected higher numbers.
  • The other two domestic cars posted extraordinary results. The big-block Cougar rose over 400%, and the Continental disproves the adage that 4-door cars aren’t collectible.
  • The value of the Montreal seems artificially low to me, and I say that only as an Alfa owner who follows the market. However, the Jag value looks spot-on for a Series II coupe.
  • The two ‘ringers’ are the Porsches. Note that in 2004, the 356 was actually valued higher than the 911S! And in 2004 dollars, the 911 is the lowest-value car here, tied with the Continental.

What does all this mean? Nothing. (Like Seinfeld.) Seriously, it means that no one saw any of this coming. Looking at this with hindsight, do I have a twinge of regret? Ever so slightly, but not really. The Cougar is the same year as my Mustang, but would not have looked as unique as my car. I adore E-Types, and perhaps missed the boat my not snagging one when I could have. But making those statements does not take in the complete picture:

  • When I bought the GT/CS, it was in Maryland, about 3 hours away. I felt lucky finding one within a day’s round trip drive. Who knows where I would have found any of these other cars?
  • The Mustang was comparatively easy to work on, and I did most of my own maintenance and repair work.
  • Wrenching on a Jag or Porsche of any flavor means exponentially higher parts prices, and greater levels of complexity.
  • The Cal Special was very reliable. I drove it to Nashville, and on two complete New England 1000 rallies. Who is to say that any of these others would have been equally reliable?
  • There was something very special about the uniqueness of my GT/CS. To recap, that model was never officially sold east of the Mississippi by Ford, so very few of them are on the East Coast. Many people who saw it, even seasoned car show veterans, didn’t know that such a model existed. It was an exciting conversation piece.
  • I sold my GT/CS in 2012 for $20,000. You think I made a profit? Adding up insurance, routine maintenance, and repairs, it’s closer to the truth to say I broke even. But I had nine years to enjoy the hobby in it, and there’s no telling what kind of experiences any of these other vehicles could have delivered. So no regrets at all.
My GT/CS, the only domestic in sight, at the 2007 New England 1000 rally

 

Can anyone predict which collector cars of today will show value increases of 400% over the next 15 years? It’s fun to talk about, but I won’t be using real money to place any wagers. I’d rather get out there and drive.

All photographs copyright © 2020 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

An Addendum to the Kirk F. White / Auburn Speedster Post

This is an addendum to my own post re: Kirk F. White, which referenced the 12-cylinder Auburn Speedster he sold at auction in 1971 for $20,000. At that time, twenty grand was about five times the going price of a new Volvo sedan.

Part of my frustration in putting that blog post together was the lack of any hard information about Auburn Speedster values, either based on recent sales or on numbers published in price guides. So I was pleasantly surprised when I leafed through my copy of the 2020 edition of Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market Pocket Price Guide, and found figures for Auburn Speedsters!

First, there was an 8-cylinder Speedster made from ’31-’34, which I had neglected to mention. The SCM median price for that model is $245,000. The V12 Speedster from the same vintage is shown with a value of $410,000. The 1935-1936 Speedster (they are all boattails) with the supercharged straight 8 sits at the top of the heap: SCM claims a median price of $756,000.

These numbers baffled me, because I expected the V12 to be more highly valued than the 8, even if the 8 was supercharged. Googling some further images solved that puzzle. The ’31-’34 Speedsters, while attractive cars, carried over a linearity from the 1920’s in their styling. A vertical grille, standalone headlamps, dual sidemounts, and bulky running boards stood in stark contrast to its reclining windshield and new-fangled boat tail.

When I compared this model with the updated ’35-’36, I understood why market values are higher for the newer car. All its features are swept back, making it look like it’s going 90 standing still. The fenders have started to become integrated with the body. The entire exterior appears to be more of a single piece of sculpture. While each car would draw a crowd today (and certainly did in the 1930s), there’s no mistaking the supercharged model as the prettier ride.

By the way, supercharging, like turbocharging, provides a lot more grunt with fewer cubes. The Lycoming V12, with 392 cubic inches, produced 160 horsepower. The I-8 with 280  c.i. pushed out 150 boosted ponies, impressive for 1935.

I also found auction sale examples which fall close in line with the above numbers. Both sales are reported by RM Sotheby’s on their website: In January 2012, they sold a 1932 Auburn V-12 Speedster for $429,000. In January 2018, they sold a 1935 Supercharged Speedster for $769,500. The accompanying photos tell the rest of the story.

Too much scratch? Try one of these. Promise I won’t tell.